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  • Julia Beyen

The danger of thawing Permafrost

The recent smallpox outbreak in the Beaufort-Delta is only a foretaste of what is lurking beneath the ice

The National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCCID) in Canada was able to identify the mysterious pathogen that has been affecting hundreds of people in the Inuvik Region: it is the Variola major virus, commonly known as smallpox virus. Thanks to efforts of the WHO’s vaccination campaign smallpox had been eradicated but seemingly resurfaced again.

This does not come as a surprise, seeing as a report from October 2021 has found that the melting Arctic permafrost poses the high risk of a resurgence of disease. The former “icehouse” condition of the earth no longer applies and with the warming climate the permafrost is starting to thaw as well – exposing the global community to a series of environmental hazards. Virus strains and bacteria which could have been preserved in human or animal remains, dormant in the Arctic ice, might be released that way.

In fact, during July and August of 2016 the Yamalo-Nenets region of Western Siberia experienced three outbreaks of anthrax, a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. The region is known for reindeer husbandry and hydrocarbon extraction. A 12-year-old boy, more than 2300 reindeer and at least four dogs were killed by infections, another two dozen people were confirmed infected at that time. The infections can be attributed to soil that was originally contaminated by anthrax outbreaks in reindeer, mostly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The outbreak in 2016 has been the first (and so far only one) since 1941 and can be traced back to the thawing of the near-surface permafrost due to the unusually high summer temperatures (up to 35°C) in 2016. The thawing released spores that then led to the anthrax outbreak.

The incident in 2016 hints at what is awaiting the global community on a regular basis if environmental protection does not improve drastically. The recent smallpox outbreak is just another consequence of failed protection of the Arctic and its ecosystems. Sadly enough, indigenous communities are the first ones to suffer from this deadly neglect. It cannot be stressed enough that climate protection is not an abstract matter that can be discussed behind closed doors but a vital necessity for each and everyone.

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